WHAT'S 'LOVE' GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Chuck Woolery, the usually docile, avuncular host, was cringing in fear. In a backstage hallway, a woman named Sherri was screaming at him, proving that hell hath no fury like a Love Connection guest scorned. Just moments before, during a taping of the show, she was sitting next to Chuck on the sofa where guests have recounted their blind-date experiences for a decade now. She said her date with Dwayne was nice enough-a leisurely dinner at New York’s Hard Rock Cafe, a comedy show, and a good-night kiss. She had assumed Dwayne would say the same. But as soon as he appeared on the monitor, he brandished a woman’s hair extension and accused her of being a fake. She was shocked-the hairpiece didn’t even belong to her. Throughout the ensuing vicious attack from Dwayne, Sherri just sat there, stunned all but speechless. But after the show, when she spotted Woolery backstage, she could no longer contain herself. ”Motherf — -er!” she screamed, and lunged at him. A producer restrained her just in time. A second more and Woolery’s winning smile-thus his career-could have been seriously crumpled. Just another day at Love Connection, where guests are led to the slaughter, & where the beleaguered writer-producers refer to themselves as ”the postal workers of the entertainment industry,” and where the host is not very affectionately known as ”Ted Baxter.” Since the debut of Love Connection in 1983, discontent among the creative ranks and guests has become the stuff of legend in Hollywood. Writers and contestant coordinators turn over at an alarming rate-about two dozen during the last season alone. They even have reunions, like the survivors of the Titanic. On June 30, the West Coast branch of the Writers Guild of America will hold an arbitration hearing based on dozens of writers’ complaints alleging nonpayment and other contract disputes. Most of the horror stories feature the show’s executive producer and creator, Eric Lieber, a wealthy (reportedly making $200,000 a week), short-tempered bear of a man. What’s not to love about Love Connection? Let us count the ways. One of last season’s guests complains, ”They want you to say things you’d never say in a million years.” During his preshow interview, he recounted that in his family, ”it was the norm to wake up in the morning and start fighting with your sisters and your brother and everybody wrestles.” In his script for the show, the line had become, he recalls, ”I like to wrestle, because I like a girl who gets down and dirty.” He also confirms what many savvy viewers have always suspected: that some of those people aren’t telling the truth. Another guest was heard in the green room bragging openly about the story he and his date had made up for the show: She threw up on him during a Ferris wheel ride, but he was so understanding that she immediately asked him to marry her. Under pressure from Lieber and second-in-command Larry Gotterer, writer-producers encourage such embellishments. ”You have to make it so that either they want to get married after the show, or they’re gonna kill each other,” says a former production assistant. Guests routinely threaten to sue, claiming they’ve been manipulated (though none has successfully followed through). While guesting on Love Connection is less than heavenly, some say that working there can be downright hellish. After carefully coaching guests on what to say, producers often watch helplessly as segments are derailed by Woolery, who doesn’t meet guests or read scripts before taping. One of last season’s producers advised his guests not to mention cities or streets, ”because Chuck will start talking about routes (to take).” Woolery defends his ad-lib technique: ”I prefer to remain ignorant on a certain level. I love to derail the segments. They derail anyway.” And when a segment does go awry, producers risk a berating from Lieber in front of the studio audience. Even Woolery isn’t immune to such abuse. ”Lieber chewed me out in front of a studio audience early on,” says the host, who has since made friends with the boss. ”If you can work for Eric, you could work for anybody.” Others are less upbeat. ”It’s a degrading, disgusting experience, and I wouldn’t wish it on a dog,” says former writer Laurie Kaye, who has a claim for back payment of residuals now pending against the show through the Writers Guild, East. Another writer, Angela Smith, says, ”I felt such relief to get the hell out of there.” Producers also say they’re pressured to get black guests to fight on screen, because, they’re told, it makes good TV. Lieber has no comment, but many former writer-producers are eager to talk. ”The sad thing is,” says a former staffer, ”a lot of people actually go on the show to try to meet somebody.” ”It’s like walking into a Venus flytrap,” says another. ”It wants blood.”